The Bridge and the Numb Tongue
**This is a story excerpt from my life. The teacher requested that we use our voice and not worry so much about proper grammer. These are two stories that actually occurred during my life, however any details that were shady in memory were embellished to fill in the gaps. Let me know what you think.**
The Bridge and the Numb Tongue
By: Sonya Andreanoff
The beach of the Kuskokwim River in the Alaskan Village of Red Devil was rocky and muddy at the same time. I kicked a rock into the water and wondered about my life and where it was going. I felt defeated at a ripe old age of 22, having gone through a divorce the previous year and some other tough events in my life. I was back home for a short while, visiting my parents and reflecting on my past. I really should have been thinking more about my future, however at the time I just didn’t care. I felt very negative and downtrodden.
The clouds were heavy and about as grey as dirty water, while the whole village anticipated the fuel barge arriving very soon. The winter supply of fuel for the village and its generators was to arrive either that day or the next. I didn’t really care about the barge, but it was at least something different to see in that drab little village of about 80 residents in western Alaska. I wondered what I was doing there for about the ten-thousandth time and kicked another rock into the water.
As the barge rounded the corner, the call went out across town. The ‘watcher’ sitting on his four-wheeler had seen the barge and rushed to the nearest house who then called all the needed villagers to the fuel line site. It takes a village effort to properly and safely secure the fuel from the barge to the village tanks. I remember thinking about how odd it seemed, as the kids raced all around their parents and played excitedly as if the circus had just come to town.
After the fuel lines were running, the captain of the barge came off the ship to watch the proceedings. I knew who it was – vaguely. His name was Iyana Gusty and he was a native man from the Village of Stony River, which was further on up the river. He had been the captain of many a barge for almost three decades. He was in his late fifties at the time and he had a mischievous, yet youthful glint in his eye that belied his age. His silver-streaked black hair and his leather-lined face were the only features that confirmed his real age.
He was walking up the bank towards me as I stumbled along watching the circus come to town. I almost panicked as I realized he intended to speak with me. I thought about high-tailing it out of the area as fast as I could. Too late, I had no choice but to remain where I stood. Iyana walked right up to me and with a glint in his eye, he said, “Give me your hand.” I did, thinking that he intended to shake my hand. Instead, Iyana flipped my hand palm up and said, “I need to tell you something girl. Are you ready to hear me?” In a state of confusion, I replied simply, “Uh…Yes.”
With my hand, palm up, in his right hand he softly said, “Sonya, when life brings you to the wrong path and you are ready to leave it…” He trailed his finger down my arm towards my pinky, and continued, “…you can build a bridge towards the right path.” He then moved his finger towards my middle finger, jumping from finger to finger, and stated seriously, “Never think that you cannot build this bridge. The right path is never that far away and the only supplies you need are your family and faith.”
I couldn’t find my voice. With teary-eyed astonishment, all I could muster was a whispered “Thank you.” He gave my hand a quick shake and smiled at me with a sweet twinkle in his eye and walked away barking orders at some young crewman on the barge. I remained where I was in deep thought. I am not really sure how long I stood there contemplating what had just happened. How did he know I was on the wrong path? Did someone tell him? Had he been watching me as I kicked rocks into the river? What does it all mean? I decided to walk back towards my house to help me think.
As I was walking, I reflected on this new lesson in life that had been gifted to me from an Elder of Stony River. I thought about the many lessons I had accumulated from others in my life, some from odd places or from odd people. Most people gather their lessons either from watching others or by learning from their own mistakes. A lot of people learn lessons the hard way, while others are teachers who actually teach them the hard way. This brought my thoughts around to another lesson I learned as a child of about twelve years old.
My mom was going to Kenai Peninsula Community College to work towards her degree in Fine Art. Sometimes, I would count myself lucky enough to get to trail along. I would learn about painting, or maybe flora and fauna, from the many teachers at the college. Some of my most fond memories are at the college in the art rooms, walking along with my mom’s favorite professor named Boyd Shafer. He was tall and reminded me of my deceased grandfather, and he seemed to have a mild mannerism about him. He always had paint on his hands and clothing, and a gentle smile in his eyes. He was an extremely intelligent and artistic individual who happened to be in love with nature. I remember being in awe of him as he took me aside and taught me how to properly sketch houses; and then he would take me around and have me watch him critique the artists in his class.
My most vivid memory of him is when he was teaching a flora and fauna class. They had decided to take a walk in the woods to learn about the plants right outside the college, and I was excited about getting to be there for the class as we trudged into the woods for a little ways. Boyd Shafer was training his assistant that day and had him along to learn how to teach this sort of class. I could smell the fresh greenery breaking under our feet while I was lightly brushing my hands on the ferns. I suddenly realized that the entire class had stopped, and they were intently listening to the professor.
Professor Shafer was talking about the Water Hemlock plant and telling about how poisonous it was. This is the plant that was used to kill Socrates and he was making it a point to verify that, “…although it looks like wild celery, nevertheless it is deadly”. I was very curious about the plant that he was talking about so I moved in closer to get a better view. He was using his knife to cut the chambered root in half to show us the difference.
The Professor seriously looked at the class and said, “You are never to do what I am about to do as it could kill you. After I touch the tip of my knife to my tongue, I will not be able to talk for about an hour as my tongue and throat will be paralyzed!” And with that, and many shocked gasps from the crowd, he proceeded to touch his knife to the tip of his tongue. It was instantaneous! Boyd’s face turned bright red and his eyes lightly glazed over; and with that, the assistant quickly took over the talking. For the rest of the class, Boyd didn’t say a word but he would point out plants to the assistant.
I was scared to death for him, and wondered why he would do such a thing. Boyd later explained to me that he wanted to drill home just how poisonous plants can be. He was making sure that the class learned the lesson, and learned it well, because there have been people who have gotten very sick or died from experimenting with plants and mushrooms in the wild. He ended up just fine in the end, although a bit thirsty.
I have thought about that moment for most of my life and have come to the conclusion that, just as some lessons can be learned the hard way; other lessons are best being taught the hard way. I will never forget that moment, as well as the moment that Iyana Gusty taught me how to build a bridge in my life.
These are the moments, and life lessons, that make up your memories and quite possibly your future, as they did mine. Lessons like these are ones that stick with you, and become a part of your personality and they will direct decisions you make later in life. As I kicked another rock into the fireweed on the side of the road, I thought about my future for the first time in a very long time. I started smiling as I skipped down the dirt road of life, thinking about a future yet to be.